I couldn’t go to sleep.
Spending time in a crowded hospital with a dear friend who was dying left me restless and lying awake looking for God in the dark and finding nothing.
It was the proverbial last straw. Too much.
“What the hell?!...Does God even exist?!” I bitterly thought in the emptiness. The absurdity of being a spiritual director seemed to mock me in that moment.
Every image of God I ever held did nothing to comfort me and the absence of images and comfort left me in a place of nihilistic rage and deep sadness.
Even though I had read John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich by her hospital bed, recalling conversations we had enjoyed over the years about their (and our) experiences of love in the darkness, here I was struggling in my own dark night.
“What a waste of my life! What a charade!” I thought as I recalled my life of being devoted to God and tending to the spiritual life, both mine and others, only to stare into the void of meaninglessness (and not for the first time).
Furrowed brow, eyes squeezed shut, the rest of my body now as tense as my face, silently shouting—"Where is God in this chaos?” “Why even ask? Life is showing me there really is no God at all.”
After a while, somehow, something small slipped in through the tightness and whispered, “God IS Chaos.”
Before I could think, my brow and eyes started softening.
My body noticed the truth before my brain could think about refuting what had just been spoken to me in the dark.
Then an image appeared in my mind’s eye—Kali.
I couldn't remember much about her, only that she's the Hindu goddess of chaos and destruction leading to life. Images of her can be quite disturbing (especially for those of us Westerners who don't know the symbolism) and here she was showing up in the stillness of night! Later I would read that in Hinduism, she is the ultimate manifestation of Shakti, the primordial energy, the mother of all (watch this video for more). Kali’s dark skin stands for this chaotic, life-birthing energy.
"Hearing ‘God IS Chaos’ and remembering the Hindu goddess, Kali…there was something strangely settling in that, and I was able to fall asleep,” I later texted a friend, a nurse experiencing burnout in a crowded hospital (she went on to write a piece of prose for her doctoral class assignment based on our text thread).
The next morning, I walked outside in my pajamas. The stifling heat, sticky humidity, and earsplitting cicadas continued the conversation— I was surrounded by the sound and sensations of chaos.
I forced myself to sit in the discomfort.
From that place I wondered if I had written anything down from the Icon-Writing Retreat my dear friend and I had attended together a couple of months earlier.
I went inside, grabbed my journal, then returned to the front porch to find the dates of that weekend retreat.
In the first place, I had no time to go on that retreat. Life had been exhausting and the thought of painting anything in that state added to my overwhelm. In the second place, I wanted to spend time with my dear friend, knowing that stage 4 cancer was eventually going to rob us of time (by the way, Kali's name means both "darkness" and " force or fullness of time"). So I picked her up on a Friday morning in May and went.
There it was, May 13th-15th, along with a short entry for each day (the last one being, "I am so glad I went."). I was grateful that I had written down a few things, even though they had been forgotten in the rush of life’s challenges.
I recalled how my friend and I sat side-by-side looking at the blank wood that our icons would be painted on and while she felt excitement, I felt dread. How was I going to do this?!
The instructor told us to fill our brushes with paint and then said, “Relax, because the first stroke when it comes to painting an icon is called The Chaos Stroke!”
Immediately I softened and a hint of excitement even found its way inside my weary head.
The Chaos Stroke is named so because it represents the primordial energy at the beginning of Creation found in the first chapter of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible.
Our spontaneous swirls and waves echoed the Spirit (or Wind or Breath) of God, moving over the surface of the deep, dark waters. And like the Genesis account, step by step, day by day, things started appearing where before there was nothing but potential in the eye of the Beholder.
From the chaos within me, from the chaotic swirls on my wooden panel, emerged a rendering of Rublev’s Trinity from the 15th century!
I smiled sitting on the porch, in awe of the synchronicities…chaos, Kali, cicadas, a journal entry about the Chaos Stroke from an icon retreat attended with this friend whose impending death had ushered in another layer of chaos...
Nothing had changed. It still felt awful to know my friend was going to die (and she did, less than 24 hours later). And the things that were a mess in my life, were still a mess. Nothing had changed this, and yet…
Being open to “God Is Chaos” had strangely allowed comfort and brought the awareness that God was also “With Me in Chaos.” The latter recalls the message gifted us through the person of Jesus the Christ, who was called Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Light began shining in my darkness once more.
Holding the paradox of "God Is Chaos" and "God With Us in Chaos," I remembered the expression that emerged on the face of the center figure, the Christ, in my friend’s painting of the Holy Trinity—we laughed and called him the “Mischievous Jesus.” He knew something we did not...yet.
Even now, words fail to describe how, in darkness and in light, I keep being beckoned into the at-times-difficult, divine dance that Rublev painted years ago, his brush beginning with Chaos.
It had not even been 24 hours since she got the news her cancer was back.
Whenever I have a cancellation, I contact those who are on my waiting list to see if anyone wants the spot.
In October, a person I had not seen for a long while got in touch with me saying she just had a feeling she needed to begin spiritual direction again. I had no openings but promised I would contact her when one became available.
A couple of weeks later, I happened to have a cancellation and she was able to arrange her schedule to meet with me later in the week. She had no idea when we set that appointment that she would be sharing news about the return of cancer.
Last week I wrote about friends who have terminal illnesses and wake up happy and grateful. But when the news is fresh, that’s probably not how you’re going to wake up.
Scared and angry is more like it.
During our session of Reiki and guided prayer, I asked her if she could let God be angry with her about the news she had just received.
“God doesn’t get angry,” she said.
“Well then you haven’t read the prophets,” I replied.
“Really…” she said with a mix of surprise and sarcasm.
“Yes, really, I imagine God damning this prognosis to hell. I want to yell: God, damn it!”
She smiled wryly. And then her imagination began to unfold and tears mixed with words flowed, as she let God into her anger.
Sometimes we wake up happy and grateful. Sometimes we wake up scared and angry. God can join us in both.
Both can be holy as we allow God into every part of our lives.
Even though we may know God is always present, we often live as though God is far off and we are on our own. Or we might think that God expects us to be hopeful and happy so will wait until we have a bit more gratitude before joining us.
This simply is not true.
The Creator who endowed us with the full-range of human emotions, expects us to express them. And every single one of them can be pathways to prayer and to the very heart of the One who made us.
Rather than running and hiding through self-sufficiency, self-loathing, or a smile, when the Divine Presence asks, “Where are you?” let’s be honest.
“Here I am!” we can say and then name where and how we really are—angry, sad, scared...
Let God in, for God knows it’s not good for any of us to be alone.
Two people in my life are facing a terminal illness. And here’s what else they have in common: gratitude.
Every time I talk to them, whether a simple conversation or in spiritual direction, I am amazed at the depth of their gratefulness.
Their faces light up.
It is like their diagnoses gave them new eyes to see life. And they are overwhelmed by the beauty right in front of them. Even more so, they are overwhelmed by the peace of God inside of them. The windows of their souls reflect it in such delightful ways.
“Every day I wake up so happy!” one exclaimed to me (without a single relationship or situation changing in their life).
How is this possible?
Much of it is pure gift. Grace.
And some of it, I am sure, is because both have done inner work in the years leading up to this moment.
They learned how to listen deeply to God and how to listen deeply to others. They entered into meditation and mindfulness. They learned to play and be playful. They sought out spiritual direction and a precious few others to accompany them along their inner journey.
Now their outer journey reflects what they cultivated within. Awe. Humor. Peace. Kindness. Joy. (Just to name a few)
I am honored to be a witness. They are teaching me a lot.
One of their gifts is reflected in the Sufi poet, Rumi's words, “I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and said to it, ‘Tastes sweet does it not?’ Grief confessed, ‘You’ve caught me and ruined my business. How can I sell sorrow when you know it’s a blessing?’”
If you have no idea how sorrow can be a blessing and if you do not wake up happy, maybe it is time for an inner journey of your own. There is so much to be grateful for in this life.
As I look forward to speaking at Day 7’s 2021 Self Care Summit on September 14th on "The Wisdom of Colors," I revisited one of the workshops I offered for them in 2020, "Resilience for Spiritual Caregivers."
A friend and I were talking about resiliency the other day. Life has presented some big challenges to us recently and we are weary. Some days can feel like a slog and other days a fight "to get back to a sense of normal."
Being resilient feels like extra pressure. And if we're honest (& if I'm paying attention to my constantly twitching eye!), we don't know how much more we can take before we crack (thank God I have a good therapist and spiritual director!).
So what does it mean to be "resilient"?
The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology has been doing research on the topic through their Resilient Leaders Project. Their findings have encouraged people to move away from the idea of resilience as “coping” or “bouncing back.”
Coping strategies or self-comfort behaviors may offer some short-term relief but can impact us in negative ways in the long-run. Constantly comforting myself on desserts every night or binging on Netflix for hours a day inevitably will hurt my physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and relational well-being. They are a temporary solution (and sometimes that's what's needed that moment) that are not a viable long-term one.
"Bouncing back" offers an image of returning to who you once were prior to a crisis or before the challenge occurred. But can you really return? Is "getting back to" a redemptive strategy?
What if resiliency is growing and becoming stronger in meaningful ways in response to adversity, much like muscle growth?
What if the crisis or difficulty you are going through right now has the potential to deepen and grow you in remarkable ways, would you be interested?
Watch the video below to discover more.
And join me for "The Wisdom of Colors" at this year's Summit as we have fun while gaining insight into the messages colors may be bringing us. Why might the color yellow be showing up when you close your eyes to pray or meditate? What might all the green in your recent dreams offer? The wisdom you are seeking may be in the color you chose to wear today!
Tuesday, September 14th, 10:00-11:00am CT Register here.
When was the last time you listened to the wisdom of your body?
If you’re like me, you may tend to ignore or put off its signals for rest or even a bathroom break, much less listen to its wisdom!
This is a lifelong learning for me, but I continue to pursue it because like dreams, the body tells us the truth even as our ego, survival self keeps plowing ahead checking off items on our to do list.
When in my ego, survival self, I find my body a distraction. When not pushing through or ignoring it, I tend to be critiquing and evaluating it instead.
BUT, when listening from my more compassionate Self, I discover awe and gratitude for my body’s wisdom. My body becomes a gift from God and in those moments when I receive that gift through attentiveness, a shift happens. I am taken to a deeper, more authentic place where I’m much kinder to myself and others. A perspective comes that I was not aware of prior to listening to my body. Or, some expression like a cleansing cry allows for a much needed physical and emotional release.
And it can happen in a matter of moments!
So here is an easy way to begin to offer a listening ear to your body & hear what wisdom it holds:
Let yourself stay with and in the moment with your body for as long as you are able or desire. You might pause for a moment and say, “This is what incarnation feels like” realizing the Spirit of God dwells within you. Then place a gentle hand on your body or speak some gentle words of gratitude to and for your body before you continue with your day.
Imagine you are being photographed and interviewed for Humans of New York. What story do you tell?
“We are the stories we tell about ourselves,” proclaims Rabbi Rami in his Guide to Forgiveness (p 65). If this is true (and our love of stories, as evidenced by the popularity of Humans of New York along with Netflix and novels, show it is), then it’s important that we know what stories we’re telling.
If the stories you share with others and the stories that live in you were turned into a movie, a series, a novel, or a HONY Facebook post, I’m curious what they would reveal as to who you are (at least in your own mind or who you want people to believe you are!). It’s worth consideration, so let’s ask some questions:
If you were to share 3 life-defining stories, what stories would you tell? When you start thinking through your stories, maybe you discover there are more you want to tell, so try 7-12 stories. Maybe you write down the titles or a brief synopsis to begin with, then take a look at them. Notice how your collection of stories define who you are and how you approach and move through life.
How many of your stories include tragedy and/or suffering? How many of those stories also include redemption and/or resurrection? Notice any elements of surprise or suspense.
Who are you in the stories you tell? What role do you play? Are you cast as the victim? savior? hero? rebel? fool? Is your soul happy with that role? We may not realize that we are playing a role someone else has written for us. Or, we might discover we are typecast in a particularly unfavorable role.
Thinking of stories of harm, hurt, anger, and resentment that continue to burden you…
Are there any stories that need to be edited or re-storied? Which ones are crying out for a rewrite?
Even as strong feelings exist around them…
Is it time to assign new meaning or step out of a role that no longer fits? As Rabbi Rami reminds us--feelings come and go, stories can last a lifetime. (p. 79). We do not have to wait until our feelings are all resolved before we move forward with our life. Sometimes feelings resolve as we move forward with more wisdom and creativity than before.
Your stories matter. Are you beginning to see how that is true?
The story that lives in you shapes who you believe yourself to be (as well as who you believe God and others to be). It also shapes the way you tell stories about yourself to others.
Says Gertrud Mueller Nelson, in Here All Dwell Free, “Know your story, or your story will live you.” If we don't know the story we are living, we can easily get caught up in or be entrapped by our feelings of resentment, bitterness, and anger. They can define us by becoming the soil out of which our story grows.
Misunderstanding, hurt, harm, suffering...they are all a part of life. Everyone’s story includes them. But not everyone allows them to be transformed.
Maybe it’s time to revisit your stories or to write down the names of people in those stories who have caused you harm. Then consider what God has done and is doing with and through those stories. You might be surprised.
A beautiful re-storying is found in the book of Genesis in the story of Joseph and his brothers (a powerful retelling is found in Stephen Mitchell’s book, Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness). After being sold into slavery by his own brothers due to jealousy, years later a famine forces them to seek food in Egypt, where Joseph, who was once a slave, has risen to power and is now in charge of the food supply. He recognizes them, though they don’t recognize him so he plans a creative way for the revelation to occur. His God’s-eye view of his own story allows the present story to unfold with compassion and creativity rather than revenge. Or maybe that is the best kind of revenge!
After the surprising reveal, Joseph invites his brothers into God’s larger story of redemption when he tells them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20). He does not pretend the harm did not happen, he just transforms the harm.
Harm happens and usually people don’t mean to harm you (you’re just in the way of their happiness) but sometimes people do. Either way, you are not condemned to your story of suffering, a new story awaits. Will you join in the ongoing work of the Author of Life in transforming your story?
How does your body let you know?
Here's how mine lets me know that the chaos is starting to overwhelm:
...eyes feel strained and tired.
...brain feels like an electrical storm of overstimulation.
...breathing is shallow or I'm holding my breath.
...adrenaline surges, making it hard to be still.
...chest feels heavy and tight with anxiety.
...shoulders and neck get tense.
...head begins to ache from all of the above!
This is a sure sign to me that it’s time to step away from the phone, stop scrolling through social media, or reading/watching/listening to the news. I won’t find what I’m really looking (or longing for) anyway!
And no, I'm not not talking dissociation (disconnecting with reality) and ignoring what is going on in the world. I'm talking about connecting with reality as it is experienced and revealed by our bodies so that we can connect to reality as it is outside of our bodies in a healthy way.
What if we asked ourselves, "Who is the me I'm bringing to the world (and to the issues at hand)?" Am I bringing my frantic, survival self or my grounded, truer self? Which would you prefer, by the way?
How do we do we connect with our true self (hint: not through more social media or news!)?
By diving under the chaotic surface of the waves (remember they’re connected to the calming deep but few venture to go there!), we discover our truer self. In the deep we surprisingly find we’re able to breathe, rest (physically & more!), and receive what’s next (or what isn’t next).
Instead of my frazzled, overstimulated, chaotic mind making decisions, I can bring to the world (& all its issues) the contemplative mind…the mind of Christ.
So here’s some permission. Dive (or if you’re extremely tired, sink) into the deep for a while.
Still don’t know how? Are you breathing as you read this? That is your starting place. Then maybe some Spiritual Direction for further exploration.
“Must be hard being 10 and already going through dark night of the soul,” 14-year-old, Lainey, said as the two of us drove back from her fencing lessons.
Her comment about her brother caught me off guard.
As a Spiritual Director, I companion adults going through Dark Night of the Soul, but I had not considered how children may, too. I know that children suffer depression which in adults can coincide with Dark Night, but I had not seen Dark Night through a child’s eyes (even though our most memorable moments with God often happen when we are children).
For those not familiar with the concept, Dark Night is a stage in the spiritual journey that Saint John of the Cross experienced and wrote about in the 16th century. He gave words to the “spiritual crisis” that occurs for those seeking union with God or to embody Perfect Love.
Whether happening gradually or initiated through a tragedy or hardship, Dark Night can be felt as emptiness and dryness. Our go-to spiritual practices no longer “work.” Those activities and places of belonging that once brought us enjoyment, no longer do so. We suffer disappointment, doubt, disorientation, discomfort, disillusionment, and even the utter disintegration of our thoughts and feelings about God, ourselves, and life. In experiencing this loss and grief, depression can occur.
We ask questions like, “Who am I?” “Who and where is God?” “What’s going on?” “Why can’t things go back to ‘normal’?” “What is normal anyway?” “Will this ever end?”
This liminal space is entered into many times in our lives as we find ourselves in places and situations we would rather not be (like in a pandemic!). We are in that “in-between” of who we were before and who will be after…it’s definitely uncomfortable. My 10-year-old joins the rest of the planet in this communal Dark Night of the Soul.
He’s asking, “Who am I?” “Who are my friends?” “Do I even have friends anymore?” “Will friends recognize me when I do go back to school?” “Is virtual school even school?” “Will I ever play baseball or basketball again?” “Will I even love sports again?” “Things are too stressful in the world right now, is it always going to be like this?”
Now here’s what makes Dark Night different from depression. When depressed, it’s a good idea to seek counseling and/or receive medication which hopefully helps us emerge from the darkness of depression with great relief. And while there may be inner relief from the suffering (which is something to celebrate), there may not be inner transformation. One may be grateful to simply return to oneself.
During a Dark Night, rather than seeking a way out of the darkness, we are led deeper into it (a Spiritual Director is really helpful in the dark!). This is the place where God loosens our attachments to all we may mistake for God, life, and our true selves.
It can be painful to have these attachments revealed and painful to let go of them. After all, we might really love being known as the athlete, whether spiritual or baseball! We might cherish the feeling we get in imaging and relating to God in a certain way.
However, when we emerge from Dark Night, we not only find relief but we are also transformed. We no longer see or exist in the world in the same way we did prior to the darkness. In other words, we do not return to ourselves, but are a new, truer Self!
An expanded heart is the fruit of the Dark Night. We see God, ourselves, and the world in deeper and wider ways and we are free to love God, ourselves, and the world in deeper and wider ways.
A different 14-year-old girl shared an image that came to her during our Girls’ Group-time of listening to the instrumental song, Unfolding. It offers a beautiful and striking image of what it’s like to come through Dark Night of the Soul:
I saw a newborn fawn.
The fawn had outgrown the only world it knew and she was witnessing the moment of it breaking free of the old and opening its eyes in the new one. As her words convey, the birth process is messy--so is being “born again” into a new way of being and seeing! This is my hope for our world. In the words of Matthew Fox, “A pandemic is a terrible thing to waste.”
In the meantime, we have the birth pains.
Last night I talked with my son about his struggles and the possibility of counseling. With his permission, I share what he said: “Mom, I don’t think I need counseling right now, I have no problem discussing my feelings with you and Dad. And yeah, I’m learning new things about myself, but I’m mad and nothing helps. I hate sports right now. Lainey’s discovered a sport and mine are gone. I can't do anything right. I don’t know when it will end, maybe it never will. But I don’t need any other voices right now, what I need is you.”
At 10, he’s being led deeper into the dark and I’m going to sit with him there, as a Spiritual Director and Mom. Together, in this womb-like darkness, we’ll wait and trust that the God we cannot see or feel, is truly Emmanuel, “God-with-us.”
Anxiety. Anger. Heaviness. Headache. Nausea. Nerve-pain. Tension. Tears.
My 14-year-old woke up way too early this morning and as we met in the hallway both of us bleary-eyed, she said, “Ugh, I’m feeling everyone’s collective stuff.” “I hear you,” I replied.
This is normal. We are all interconnected so you’re not alone today if you are feeling more than your normal share in this liminal space. Jesus felt his people’s collective pain. He shares in our suffering.
However, at this point, unlike Jesus, we often go searching outside ourselves for a remedy that can only come from a deeper place within. Understandably, we want a quick fix. We want to feel better and we want others to feel better.
So we are apt to compulsively scan the horizons of social media, news, books (even the most holy ones!), and other people (even the most holy ones!) looking for “good news” or at least a reminder that we are not the only burden-bearers. But no amount of memes, quotes, or conversations can offer what that pit in our stomach is crying out for.
It knows something, that discomfort, that pain. It has stories to share (for our bodies hold memory). You actually don’t need any new insights, you need to trust the ones you already have! So what do you already have? What do you know in your depths? I trust you know something to be true in your bones. What is it?
Here are some additional ways to listen to the wisdom within (God’s own Spirit dwelling within your own being, your own story, your own body).
By the way, when I asked my daughter what she knew to be true in her bones, her worried brow immediately softened as perennial wisdom rushed from the depths to the surface. She sang, "Don't worry about a thing. 'Cause every little thing gonna be alright."
Bob Marley, Julian of Norwich, Saint Paul, and Jesus, would all agree.
My 13-year-old daughter started animating the morning after a tornado blew through our town of Mount Juliet, TN, leaving a path of heart-breaking destruction. At first, it was a way for her to express her feelings. It then became a way for her to speak to others affected by the storm and direct people to give to The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. When she first showed me her completed animation, I was amazed by its heart and simplicity.
One scene in particular continues to stay with me. When the boy grabs hold of the extended hand, he bursts into tears. Rather than stifle them, the touch allows his tears to flow freely and the animation stops right there.
It doesn’t end on a sunny note (even though she wrote earlier in the video, “It’s going to be okay…We’re in this together.”). Having the promise of things inevitably being okay does not mean we are (or someone else is) okay in the moment. It does not mean we need to stop our tears or think there’s nothing to cry about (even if someone does have it worse).
There is a time to leap into action, to encourage each other that all will be okay, to gather in churches to sing praises and offer thanksgiving, to share Scriptures and words of hope to find strength for the road ahead.
There is also a time, especially as the shock wears off, to allow for tears, both individually and communally, and stop right there.
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.